21 May 2018

Simple privilege

An appointment was not required. The counter is open five days a week, come anytime. I didn't even have to pick a number and wait my turn. Instead, I simply walked up to the counter at the town hall, plopped down my ID, my Heimatschein and a copy of my lease, and said: "I'd like to register as a resident."

Five minutes later, I was 20 francs poorer, but walked away with a confirmation of being a legal resident of Switzerland once again. From this moment on, all my voting materials, tax documentation, official notifications, social security receipts and so on will come to my new address. I am back.

No questions asked, no need to give reasons for settling, proof of income or employment, no forms to fill - by showing a Swiss ID, I had established my right of abode. Simple as that. The clerk even gave me a welcome pack containing useful information, a map, discount chits, a transit timetable and one official garbage bag for the town (no Canadian has ever heard of Sackgebühr).

Arriving in Canada nine years ago, this same process took much more time, money, visits to several government offices, and lots of paperwork. Part of this was of course due to my status, at the time, of a temporary worker. But it was also at least partly down to Canada not keeping a centralized register of its residents.

These days, I know that in not doing so, Canada is in good company: Amongst liberal democracies, it is Switzerland that it is the outlier. While the Swiss find it perfectly normal that they need to register with the local municipality where they reside, others would be aghast at the prospect of the government tracking their every move. It reeks so much of totalitarian surveillance that Brits don't even have ID cards. And I remember once trying to build a business case around Canadians abroad, only to find that the government has no reliable numbers on just how many Canucks live elsewhere.

Blessed with a history of good governance, the Swiss do not second-guess their system. Even Swiss living abroad are meant to - and do - register with the local embassy or consulate, enabling the government to publish precise statistics on how many citizens live where (26'109 in the Montréal district, moins moi).

Similarly, the Swiss are often puzzled about debates raging in other countries around voter ID requirements and "registration drives" before big elections. Much like the gerrymandering of electoral districts, these concepts simply don't exist in Switzerland. Districts never change, and their weighting is adjusted to the registered population.

If nothing else, having lived abroad offers another perspective on basic processes I have taken for granted. And it lets me better appreciate these simple, but massive privileges I enjoy.

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